WATCHING WASHINGTON, RAILWAY AGE MAY 2020 ISSUE: Into the valley of the shadow of death seem to be marching rail management and labor this round of national wage, benefits and work rules negotiations. Knights of the Round Table—indeed, any table—they are not. So mired are they in the muck of distrust during this COVID-19 crisis, they couldn’t even agree on teleconference negotiations.
Author: Frank N. Wilner
RAILWAY AGE, APRIL 2020 COVER STORY: In crisis mode, America’s railroads appear sufficiently solvent, focused and managerially prepared to navigate through the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, other economic shocks, and whatever Congress and regulators may decide.
WATCHING WASHINGTON, RAILWAY AGE APRIL 2020 ISSUE: Although shippers lacking effective transportation alternatives to rail are relatively few, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) exists to protect them from market-power abuse, as railroads earn substantial margins from the traffic.
And so we have agreement in the Senate on a stimulus package to rescue the U.S. economy from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 virus. And now it’s on to the House for passage, perhaps later this week. The sheer size is stunningly immense at some $2 trillion, give or take a few billion.
As America increasingly is sheltering in place, losing unprecedented numbers of jobs and retirement savings, fearful of COVID-19, and facing a stress level unfamiliar except to those who have endured war zones, Amtrak and its workforce face only unpleasant choices if the railroad and their jobs are to survive. Fare-paying passengers have vanished—almost entirely on Northeast Corridor Acela trains; significantly on all others.
The year was 1917, and on Dec. 18, President Woodrow Wilson invoked the Army Appropriations Act of 1916 to take federal control of the nation’s railroads. The U.S. had entered World War I that April, and a lack of coordination among railroads, along with labor strife, hampered the war effort.
WATCHING WASHINGTON, RAILWAY AGE MARCH 2020 ISSUE: Welcome back, Operation Lifesaver. Visibly restored is the vim and vigor vital to your task. While you were regrouping, horribles continued at highway-rail grade crossings and on the steel rails that too often are narcotizing agents for otherwise safety-conscious hikers, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, short-cut seekers, snowmobilers, those fishing, midday wanderers and the permanently idle.
This is about a railroad labor union committed to serving its dues paying members, and a rail industry losing its core revenue traffic—coal—and now facing off against omnipresent low-cost, non-union truckers for the trailers and containers comprising much of the railroads’ future traffic base. It’s about new technology—the product of knowledge that for centuries has transformed the nature, quality and quantity of work. In this instance, the technology is Positive Train Control (PTC), a safety overlay system substituting artificial intelligence for engineer inattention or distraction. PTC, as does most new technology, creates job redundancies.
Color it neither Democratic nor Republican. It’s Amtrak—or, more precisely, the Amtrak déjà vu. Since its 1971 creation by Congress as America’s national intercity passenger railroad, Amtrak’s survival has been a near-run thing dependent on a never absolutely certain—but always occurring—bipartisan congressional willingness to cough up subsidy.
WATCHING WASHINGTON, RAILWAY AGE FEBRUARY 2020 ISSUE: Spending others’ money as if it were one’s own isn’t successful politics. Yet notwithstanding Congress’ current appetite for trillion-dollar annual deficits, there are limits to federal spending—especially on Amtrak, which labors perennially for but a miniscule portion.